Fates intertwined: farming and the National Parks

10 October 2018

Farming and land management, and the policies and public money that have influenced it, have shaped all of our National Parks. John Dower's report to Government in May 1944, which recommended setting up the National Parks in England and Wales, saw farming as central to the special qualities of the areas that he recommended for designation. One of Dower's four founding principles was that ‘established agriculture should effectively be maintained’. At that time, he saw little conflict between farming in the 1940s and the distinctive characteristics of the soon to be designated National Parks.

Ewe and lamb in Northumberland

Ewe and lamb in Northumberland. Photo credit: Northumberland National Park Authority.

There has however been significant change in farming practices and society in the 70 years since that report was written. And many of those changes, at least over the last four decades, have been driven by the Common Agricultural Policy. Farming has become more mechanised and often more intensive; the use of fertiliser and chemicals more widespread; summer haymaking has been replaced by earlier cuts for silage and haylage; farms have become larger and more specialised; and small farms have become uneconomic but ever more attractive assets for non-farming purchasers.

Almost 70 years after their creation, the National Parks continue to be national assets. They are beautiful and inspiring landscapes that are rich in wildlife and cultural heritage. They also deliver clean air and water, wide ranging recreational opportunities, reduce flood risk, sequester carbon and provide health and wellbeing benefits. But, we can and must do more to maximise the public benefits that these areas deliver. This will only be achieved through working with farmers and land managers and it needs to be underpinned by the right support. The Agriculture Bill, and the environmental land management scheme it should deliver, will be critical in helping to achieve improvements while also supporting rural communities.

In our report, Raising the bar: improving nature in our National Parks, for example, we highlight that more joined up thinking, areas of extensive grazing and conservation on a landscape scale is needed to secure and support the enhancement of nature in the Parks. A future payment system for farmers could be a way of delivering some of these recommendations.

Government announcements and the Bill itself are encouraging. Important public goods delivered by the National Parks, such as recreation and cultural heritage, the latter which encompasses landscapes and scenic beauty, are included. But the Bill also enables payments to support productivity. While we recognise the need for farms to be productive, and supported for a time limited period to evolve during what will be a major change in how farms are supported, we do not agreement with arguments that the delivery of food is a public good.

Through our partners at Wildlife and Countryside Link and others we are calling for the Bill to clearly set out the position that the Government has articulated in policy statements, that a new environmental land management scheme will be based on the principle of public money for the delivery of public goods.

The Bill specifically enables the creation of a new environmental land management scheme, but does not commit the Government to delivering one. Again, therefore, we are working with partners for a duty to be included in the legislation requiring such a scheme to be established. This will provide certainty for farmers and land managers.

Beyond the Agriculture Bill itself, how the future system is delivered will be key to its success. Previous environmental schemes have suffered from being too complex or lacking in long term funding guarantees. Implementation can mean the difference between thriving National Park landscapes and static or declining countryside. And we are happy to see National Parks such as the Yorkshire Dales lead the way. They are at the forefront of innovative payment-by-results farming pilots with good results for nature and farmers.

With your support we can continue doing what we’ve been doing for the last 80 plus years: being a voice for National Parks in corridors of power. With your support we can work hard to ensure the Agriculture Bill is the start of a new and glorious chapter in the history of the National Parks.

Click here to read more about the Agriculture Bill and the position of Wildlife and Countryside Link